12 January 2002

Earlier this week Laurel and I finished reading Langston Hughes' 1930 novel Not Without Laughter. We read the bulk of it while still on vacation, though actually Laurel did the reading aloud while I drove and listened. We both really enjoyed it.

The novel tells the story of an African-American child named James "Sandy" Rodgers who is growing up in the fictional town of Stanton, Kansas in the early 1900's, from the time he is a pre-teen through high school.

Sandy is being raised primarily by his grandmother whom everyone calls "Aunt Hager." She is an elderly Christian woman--of the revivalistic Baptist variety--and former slave who supports herself by taking in washing, all the time attempting to instill Christian virtue in young Sandy, to give him the hope of becoming a great man like Booker T. Washington. Aunt Hager also has three daughters.

Anjee, who is Sandy's mother, works as a cook and maid for a white family who are not terribly kind to her. She is also fiercely loyal and in love with Sandy's father, Jimboy, who is seldom on the scene, spending most of his time moving from job to job, living far away, and only occasionally writing a note home to his family.

Tempy has done well for herself in many ways, working faithfully for a white abolitionist who leaves some inheritance to Tempy. She uses her inhereitance prudently, marries well, becomes and Episcopalian and, in many ways, succeeds in the world by almost becoming more "white" than many white folks.

Harriet goes to high school, but drops out to join a carnival where she performs, eventually ending up, however, on the street, having to earn a living in an even less reputable way. In the end, however, she returns to performing as a talented blues singer and finds her way in the world.

The main narrative tension of the story arises in Sandy's own choices in light of the various paths represented by his family members as well as others in his school and town. Hughes seldom allows Sandy's journey to become a mere vehicle for his ideals, arising as they evidently do from the beliefs of W.E.B. DuBois and the trends of the Harlem Renaissance. Rather, he shows us the real conditions, dead ends, possibilities, mistakes, frustrations, and opportunities open to a black man in the early 20th century, allowing Sandy to face such a world and find the right path, embodying both the dangers and hopes that Hughes wants us to understand.

It is clear that Hughes is not convinced by visions of black advancement that come at the expense of abandoning African-American culture and its unique contributions to the American experiment. But it is also equally clear that, despite his sympathies with the conditions under which many blacks have had to live, he doesn't think there is an excuse for failing to take advantage of educational and other resources if they are available. And unlike some writers who chronicle black experience, Hughes never loses hope. Nor is he content only to portray how bleak and oppressive life can be (as Toni Morrison, for example, sometimes tends to do). He also wants to communicate the vitality, music, rhythms, and spirituality of the black community.

Hughes' Not Without Laughter makes a profitable addition to any reading list and would be especially effective, I think, as part of a high school curriculum.